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Seattle’s Overlooked Art Tour reveals history behind city’s hatch covers

This hatch cover, titled “Water Ring,” was designed by local artist Betsy Best-Spadaro in 2001. (Rachel Belle)

It’s summer tourist season, and if you’ve already done the Space Needle, taken the Seattle Underground Tour and visited the Fremont Troll, perhaps it’s time to turn your gaze down to the sidewalk for the Overlooked Art Tour.

Russell Muits and Kevin Hyde lead walking tours through Pioneer Square, sharing the history of the city’s hatch covers, which is Seattle speak for manhole covers. Seattle’s first female governor, Dixy Lee Ray, insisted they be called hatch covers, pointing out that they’re not just used by men. And in the mid 1970s, the city started commissioning artists to design them.

“Jacquetta Blanchett Freeman was the Seattle Arts Commissioner and she had traveled extensively. She saw some of these manhole covers, hatch covers, in different designs, while traveling abroad,” Hyde said. “Knowing they had to replace some old covers that were cracked or dilapidating, she brought this idea forth and said why don’t we use this opportunity to make some cool designs and to really beautify these otherwise utilitarian, basic covers. At the time, she had to put a lot of her own money into funding the first round of covers and there was just so much positive public response to [the project].”

There are now over 100 hatch covers designed by artists in Seattle. The first, titled Seattle City Grid, was installed in 1976 and Hyde pulls a little brush from his pocket and sweeps leaves and dirt off the hatch cover so we can get a better look.

“It’s by an artist named Anne Knight. What makes this design super awesome is it’s an actual grid of the city, a map of Seattle,” Hyde said. “You can see all of the streets and intersections of the downtown area but it also includes a bunch of little landmarks. You’ve got Pike Place Market, you’ve got the ferry terminal, you’ve got Denny Park and the glorious King Dome. You can see right here an indication of the utility this covers, it’s a CL for City Light. You also have a solid steel pin that’s been dropped right on the intersection where we’re standing. If you see these, there are about 19 of these around the city, they’re all going to have a different, shiny pin that tells you: You Are Here.”

The one thing the covers don’t indicate is what year they were installed.

“There’s the history but there’s also the mystery,” Hyde said. “These don’t have dates on them but they give you clues. There’s names of foundries, there’s names of utilities and if you start to deep dive and peel back and try and put the pieces together, you can close in on the range.”

There are still a couple of tours left this summer or you can schedule an appointment for a private tour.

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